“We are the slightest bit bizarre” may be quite an understatement when describing some of the delightfully strange tweens competing in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre. With all the drama and quirkiness one can expect from a spelling competition, these six young spellers have fantasies of grandeur as they compete for a chance to participate in the National Spelling Bee. With three guest spellers from the audience to contend with as they go along, Spelling Bee gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of these gifted minds and how each student can be completely unique in their own weirdness.
Before becoming a full-length musical, Spelling Bee was a comedy sketch conceived by Rebecca Feldman for a small New York improv troupe until it caught the attention of a few influential theater minds, including composer and lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin. Focusing on five main participants, Finn’s score is ebullient, with a bouncy rock feeling, as he underscores the competition, anxieties, perils, and embarrassments of burgeoning puberty in the public setting of a local county spelling bee.
Though the premise may be simple, the complexities of Spelling Bee live in its challenging comedic tone. The show’s sense of humor carefully walks the line between paying homage to the wonderfully odd classmates we all knew as kids and poking fun at the nerds and anxiety-ridden amongst us. Director Amy Kaissar successfully wrangles the many backstories and eccentricities of each competitor, but struggles with the pacing, allowing moments of overindulgence for certain spellers. With thoughtful choreography from Stephen Casey, the mood stays light and playful amidst some more serious moments throughout.
The heartwarming bits of Spelling Bee exist in the intricate way each student builds their own circumstances. Occasionally a student – or a “comfort counselor” meant to sensitively usher off a losing contestant – will slyly become a parent or sibling with a quick change of costume in order to fill in the baggage that each of these young folks bring to the bee. In this, the show is constantly flipping between present reality and an imagined fantasy world, no easy task and one which is sometimes unclear here.
Guiding the action and the heated competition of the bee are the two “adults” – Kathryn McCreary as a bubbly Rona Lisa Perretti and Robert Smythe as a perfectly dry Vice Principal Douglas Panch – who delivers the words, definitions, languages of origin, etc. each with their own biting wit. Within the group of the top six spellers (all children played by adults), each is more different from the next. Last year’s top speller Chip Tolentino, played by the charming Will Carlyon, is an all-American athletic type who falls victim to his own emerging manhood. Brooke Wetterhahn as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere is an alpha female whose lisp is as strong as her political views, and Phebe Taylor as Olive Ostrovsky is a meek but fierce competitor who is often alone but in love with her dictionary.
Oddest of them all, William Barfee, played by Joshua Morgan, has the most complete and fascinating set of nervous ticks in the cast as he struggles with his own sinus issues and protects his “magic foot” which skillfully spells the words for him. Standouts in the cast include Leigha Kato as Marcy Park, an over-accomplished transfer student who is on the verge of cracking under the pressure of the highest expectations while delivering a staggering amount of tricks in her song “I Speak Six Languages.” Just as impressive, TJ Wagner plays Leaf Coneybear with a heartwarming, subtle comedy, showing a knack for oddness as he addresses his hand puppets and questions own abilities in “I’m Not that Smart.”
Jason Simms’ scenic design lays out an everyday gymnasium that shifts as the characters’ fantasies fly free. With lighting design by Ryan O’Gara and sound design by Liz Atkinson, these crucial moments are framed in the minds of the young students as they envision the facets of their families and dream of their spelling successes. Linda Bee Stockton’s costume design beautifully defines each competitor and glimpses their uniqueness whether it’s in homemade overalls, glittery kitty cat ears, or zip off cargo pants.
Highlighting the best of what makes us each one of a kind, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is heartwarming and ultimately somewhat uplifting. It’s easy to cheer on these underdogs as they spell their way to possible victory, reinforcing the notion that what makes us different, makes us stronger.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Bristol Riverside Theatre – 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.